CLEVELAND -- The Indians' defense in 2006 was, well, indefensible. The infield botched so many important plays in the first half that the club didn't play an important game in the second. This stands in stark contrast to what has transpired this year, in these playoffs, and, specifically, in this American League Championship Series against the Red Sox. The Tribe has turned eight double plays in the first four games, and that's a big part of the club's 3-1 stranglehold on the series.
"They've just made some incredible plays in the field," starter Paul Byrd said of his supporting cast. "It's meant so much to me, because, with the way I pitch, balls are going all over the place. We might not have the best defense in the league, but it is very, very good, especially of late." With contact-inducing pitchers Jake Westbrook and Byrd on the mound in Games 3 and 4, the Indians' defenders knew they'd be challenged. They responded the way they have all year. The Tribe turned 167 double plays in '07 -- tying the Mariners for the fourth most in the league. In the ALCS, they have converted 21.6 percent of their 37 double-play opportunities. For the first time since his Triple-A days, third baseman Casey Blake turned a double play at second base in the first inning of Game 3. The Indians put a full shift on Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, who hit a scorching grounder to Asdrubal Cabrera. The second baseman picked the ball and tossed it to Blake at the bag, and Blake made the throw to first to complete the first of three inning-ending double plays in that game. "It's about the timing of the ballgame," manager Eric Wedge said. "It's about making plays when you need to, putting the ball on the ground and turning a double play when you need to." Cabrera, installed as the everyday second baseman in August, has made just about every play the Tribe has needed, including a particularly flashy leaping grab of a hard liner hit by Dustin Pedroia to end the seventh inning of Game 4. Cabrera has picked up and even improved upon the defense the Indians received from Josh Barfield before Barfield's slumping bat forced him out of the lineup. In addition to the second-base upgrade over a year ago, the Indians also have seen better range from shortstop Jhonny Peralta, a steady hand in the hot corner from Blake, who was in right field in '06, and more consistency from first baseman Ryan Garko. The Indians made 118 errors in '06 -- the second most in the AL. This year, that number was cut to 92. "Last year, I didn't feel like we were as bad defensively as maybe the numbers would show," Wedge said, before adding with a laugh, "I just felt like our timing was really bad. We broke down defensively at key moments. This year, we've stepped up defensively in key moments." And no moments have been bigger than the ones in this ALCS. Don't think ahead: Byrd was like every other baseball fan in assuming the Yankees were going to put the Red Sox away in the 2004 ALCS. New York took a 3-0 lead in that series, only to lose the next four, as Boston vaulted itself toward its first World Series victory since 1918.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.